The challenges with CBD for sports nutrition

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

© Robert Daly / Getty Images
© Robert Daly / Getty Images

Related tags: Cbd, CBD and Hemp, doping, Sports nutrition, usada

The CBD sports nutrition sector had its game significantly boosted in 2018 when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed the hemp-derived cannabinoid from its list of banned performance-enhancing substances – the market duly took off.

But the complex molecular profile of many CBD products means steadfast anti-doping guarantees remain difficult to achieve for a category seeking a legitimate seat at the table of clean sports performance.

“The sports nutrition category was slow to adopt CBD, but it’s now appearing in various products including pre-workout formulas, recovery drinks, and post-workout products,”​ said Rick Collins, partner at Collins, Gann, McCloskey & Barry in New York. “But drug-tested athletes use CBD products at their own risk.”

The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) puts it this way: “Many products which claim to be pure CBD extract or oil from the cannabis plant have traces of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) or other cannabinoids. Thus, a consumer who buys a CBD oil, extract, or other CBD product should be aware that there is a high likelihood it is a mixture of CBD and other prohibited cannabinoids, such as THC.”

USADA special advisor Amy Eichner told us anti-doping labs can test for and detect other cannabinoids​ of which there are more than 100 in common industrial hemp extracts – and all of which are banned by WADA in-competition except CBD (cannabidiol) along with THC below a certain threshold.

“Our recommendation to athletes is to not use any cannabinoid product, such as a CBD preparation, during or close to a competition,” ​Eichner said.

Separation issues in the close knit cannabinoid family

The main formulation challenge lies in the difficulty in extracting and isolating CBD from industrial hemp – hemp cannabinoids like to stick together and traces of the other 100+ cannabinoids invariably remain.

As UK-based nutritionist, food law expert and managing director of Legal Foods, Dr Mark Tallon observed: The only possible products that contain only CBD are synthetic versions and even then there is the possible conversion to other cannabinoids.”

“Synthetic is really the only route for professional sports with regular testing,”​ said Biosportart chief, Richard O’Halloran from Los Angeles where the Brit was refining a CBD trial with its US CBD supplier, PureForm. “But synthetic has risks too. It's really important to have third party testing and hosted CoAs (Certificates of Analysis) as we do.”

Third party analytics labs including California-based Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG) and ProVerde Laboratories in Massachusetts are certifying CBD products from the likes of athleticCBD in California and UK-based Biosportart.

These programs scan for hundreds of WADA-banned substances and include a selection of prohibited cannabinoids including CBG (cannabigerol), CBN (cannabinol) and CBC (cannabichromene).

BSCG president Oliver Catlin noted the existing ambiguity in that while anti-doping organizations (ADOs) like USADA could theoretically test for any banned cannabinoid, “if you look at the practical application of sport drug testing historically none of the other natural cannabinoids like CBN, CBG, or CBC were ever targeted.”

“It is unlikely they will be in the future either,” ​he said, “unless they show a performance-enhancing benefit or a potential to cause harm…Programs like ours demonstrate to sportspeople that CBD products are acceptable for use.”

Catlin said commonly synthesized cannabinoids like Delta-8 or Delta-10 deserved greater ADO attention, as they had been linked to health issues and were often being sold by firms “looking for loopholes”.

Certification reservations

Other certifiers are keeping their powder dry when it comes to CBD.

NSF International’s Certified for Sport program and LGC-owned Informed-Sport flat out refuse to certify CBD products citing uncertainty around cannabinoids like THC and CBG in CBD products like tinctures, creams, pills and gels.

“At this point we are not allowing CBD or hemp or cannabis products in our Certified for Sport program,” ​said NSF’s Certified for Sport technical manager John Travis. He observed the fact many sporting bodies and even the US Military had developed their own cannabinoid offence criteria further muddied the waters of what constitutes a safe and legal product, and added to its reticence to take on CBD.

(For example the US Military’s Operation Supplement Safety program that employs NSF and other certifications bans all hemp extracts including CBD.)

Natural Products Association (NPA) CEO and president Dan Fabricant said existing certifications would benefit from greater mainstream acceptance. “It’s not that labs can’t do it but until you have the certifications recognized by the major sporting organizations – baseball, football, basketball, hockey – or even law enforcement, if there is a doping issue, how do you litigate that?

“When the big sporting bodies have a certification they recommend that’s when you might see things kick up a gear.”

The THC threshold (and other cannabinoids) dilemma

Since WADA green lit CBD in 2018 and upped the THC-permissible threshold 10-fold from 15 nanograms to 150 ng per milliliter of urine the following year, there have been around 60 CBD-related doping infringements internationally, with a majority triggered by THC, although many infringements do not specify the particular cannabinoid in question, according to DopingList.com.

WADA’s increased THC threshold acknowledged the psychoactive cannabinoid’s potential (non-performance-enhancing) presence in tests from full-spectrum CBD products at trace levels, as well as from vapes and passive marijuana smoke intakes, but Informed-Sport’s UK-based internationally focused business development manager, Terence O’Rorke, said CBD certification hurdles remain before it could address the “significant interest from CBD brands in the US, Europe, Pacific, Japan, and South Africa​it had received.

WADA may have upped the THC threshold to address the burgeoning use of CBD products for recovery, muscle soreness, sleep and more but that threshold still presented a doping risk due to “the potential accumulated effect if an athlete consumes CBD products over a period of time.”

“The risk most likely is minimal, but until a study shows it conclusively we have decided not to certify CBD products.”

Not to mention the risk presented by the other 100+ banned cannabinoids.

“So while CBD is permitted, and the THC levels are within threshold, there is still risk from prohibited cannabinoids,” ​O’Rorke said. “A collaboration between a laboratory, an academic institution and a CBD brand might be a good way of setting up a feeding study.”

CBD in the sports nutrition marketplace: Time for a rethink?

Amid such uncertainty, the CBD sports nutrition market remains relatively buoyant despite a on CBD advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Google and the hit COVID-19 delivered to the whole CBD category as household spending belts tightened and premium-priced items like CBD were squeezed from many shopping lists.

CBD companies continue to sponsor sports, events and athletes despite high-profile doping cases like those of triathlete Lauren Goss and skier Devin Logan, both of whom received USADA suspensions after in-competition anti-doping tests returned elevated THC levels they attributed to CBD creams and drops they were using legally out-of-competition.

O’Halloran said such prolonged in vivo ​THC levels could be down to the fact “cannabinoids are also absorbed into adipose tissue and can accumulate.”

“Some studies have shown that this can be re-released into the bloodstream after long exercise.”

Such physiological uncertainty means many high-profile athletes keep their CBD use to themselves. “We sell to quite a few athletes but none will go on the record as using our product because they're afraid that they'll be targeted with specific cannabinoid panel tests even though it would be safe,” ​O’Halloran said.

Jonathan S Miller, general counsel to the US Hemp Authority and the US Hemp Roundtable called for a pragmatic regulatory re-appraisal of the CBD sports nutrition category and how cannabinoids function within it.

“The fact is demand is so strong for these products, it’s time organizations started reflecting that,” ​Miller said. “I’d hope groups recognize trace levels of these cannabinoids are not performance-enhancing and should be allowed.”

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